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shameless pleading


Vox Sox.

Dear Word Detective:  While looking up something only peripherally related to my question, I was struck by the term “bobby socks” or “bobbysoxer.”  As a whole phrase it was defined on Wikipedia, which mostly explained the “socks” part.  What it didn’t cover was “bobby.”  Was this a term in reference to rolling the socks down?  Or was it in reference to a “hair bob” or the bounciness (“bobbing”) of the “soxer”?  I’m curious to know. — Jerry.

Me too.  I was only vaguely aware of popular culture in the 1950s, being quite small during that period, though I do remember “bobbysoxer” being a buzzword among adults.  But I was consumed at the time by my mission to build a tiny town out of twigs for the local birds, on which I spent the better part of one summer.  The birds, however, resolutely refused to move into their little cabins, which is probably just as well, given the shoddy workmanship and rampant code violations.

Meanwhile, “bobbysoxers” roamed America and ruled the popular media.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines “bobbysoxer” as “an adolescent girl, especially one in her early teens, wearing bobby socks,” while the Historical Dictionary of American Slang (HDAS) fills in the details: “A teenage girl usually regarded as naively immature and an enthusiastic follower of youthful fads in music, fashion, etc.”  The HDAS pegs the first print appearance of the term  “bobbysoxer” as being in 1944, and the species flourished at least until the early 1960s.  If you’ve ever seen archival film footage of hyperventilating teenage girls with ponytails mobbing a young Frank Sinatra or (a bit later) Bobby Darin, those are “bobbysoxers.”  The spelling “sox” is, of course, simply a popular re-spelling of “socks.”

The “bobby sock” from which “bobbysoxer” derives is an ankle-length sock, usually white, and usually worn with saddle shoes or oxfords.  The “bobby” in “bobby sock” comes from the verb “to bob,” meaning “to cut short” (the socks were shorter than mainstream fashion at that time), which is the same “bobbing” that produces “bobtail” horses and “bob” (i.e., short) hairstyles (which also gave us “bobby pins,” originally designed to hold such styles in place).

The verb “to bob” comes from the noun “bob,” which first appeared in English in the 14th century meaning “a bunch or cluster,” possibly borrowed from the Irish “baban,” meaning “bunch or cluster,” as of leaves or grapes.  In English, “bob” developed a number of meanings with the general sense of “round mass” or “hanging weight,” including the weight at the end of a fishing line or pendulum.  It is probably from this sense that “bob” meaning “move up and down” came, so when “bobbysoxers” jumped up and down in excitement, they were displaying two separate, but related, senses of the same word.

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